May 22, 2011

Killing the Renaissance Man

Published as an original work on in April 2011.

Reflect for a moment on the man Leonardo da Vinci, considered one of the greatest men in all world history.

If the young Leonardo were a student in the American public education system today, which part of his curriculum would you eliminate to cut the budget? The arts? Architecture? Mathematics? Anatomy?

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo’s remarkable sketch of an anatomically correct man, is the perfect balance of art, geometry, and anatomy. While da Vinci was primarily considered a painter in his time, his sketches for helicopters and fanciful machines of the future are ground-breaking. Leonardo is the Renaissance man.

Our public education system is failing, and the consequences to our society will be dramatic. High drop-out rates and lower rankings on the world stage don’t lie. According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in January 2011, there were 8.03 million workers in local government education, down from 8.09 million a year before and 8.05 million in January 2008.

I cannot believe that fewer teachers and more crowded classrooms will improve our situation.

The educational crisis matters to America, because the key to this nation’s place in the world is a vigorous republic, brimming with engaged, informed citizens. An old quote, frequently attributed to Thomas Jefferson, says it best: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.”

My father was born with a crippling handicap into a poor family during the Great Depression. With the assistance of Indiana Vocational Rehabilitation, he obtained two college degrees and spent 37 years as a public school teacher. There is no better example of why public school matters.

Today more than ever, the world is at our fingertips through the Internet, books, and other people. A good education—the enemy of low-information voters— teaches us to think. It doesn’t necessarily provide answers, but teaches us to ask the right questions.

With federal education funds drying up, and states struggling to reshape a failing system, the first subjects to feel the sharp blade are usually humanities classes. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I think this is heresy. I understand the argument that we are falling behind India and China in science and math skills, but not everyone will enter a career based on mathematics and science. We cannot afford to forego the humanities. As a society, we need to fund and support education that is broader in scope than mathematics and science.

This afternoon I was speaking to a friend (in danger of losing her job) who teaches an AP Art History course. She spoke about teaching her students about the art of Diego Rivera, whose murals depict the early struggles of Mexican laborers and are still relevant today (regardless of one’s opinion about labor unions). A good teacher can explain art in context, fomenting a greater understanding of the world that ultimately allows informed choices at the voting booth.

On the other end of the spectrum, Ayn Rand’s literature also holds great sway today. Representative Paul Ryan, who wrote the proposed Republican budget, lauded Rand’s writings in this week’s Time Magazine.

Understanding relevant works of art and literature — from Rivera and Rand to Jefferson — opens dialogue we need as a society. It begins with broad-based public education that teaches students to ask big questions. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? How do others see the world?

The well educated person continues learning long after leaving school. With the exponential pace of change, even scientists must keep up through by constant reading and exposure to new material. I recently read that most of what medical personnel learn in school is passé within a few years.

The greatest skill we can teach our children is to think — to understand what to do with new information and when to seek more. Cutting the arts, literature, and music eliminates entire modes of thinking.

Let’s not stifle the next Leonardo, who may be fidgeting in a hot, overcrowded inner-city fourth grade classroom, contemplating how he can change the world. This piece is copyrighted.

Want to read more about it?,9171,2065262,00.html